Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic


The non-Indo-European elements in the Celtic lexicon

Although standards for mentioning possible Indo-European etymologies are rather liberal in this dictionary, there is still a large number of words in the reconstructed Proto-Celtic lexicon that cannot be attributed to any PIE root, and that are, therefore, quite likely to have been borrowed from some non-IE source. In some cases, there are a number of probable cognates in the neighbouring IE dialects (usually Italic and Germanic), but the reconstructed shape of the root distinctly shows non-IE features, which again makes it probable that the Celtic etymon in question was borrowed from some non-IE substratum language, perhaps shared with Italic and/or Germanic.

A number of such words, for which a substratum origin can be assumed, have reflexes only in Brittonic and Goidelic. This can, of course, be the consequence of the poor attestation of Gaulish, Lepontic, and Celtiberian, but in principle we cannot exclude the possibility of substrates shared by Insular Celtic languages, but not by the Continental Celtic.

The following is an alphabetical list of Proto-Celtic forms for which a substrate origin can be assumed; in each case it is indicated whether the etymon in question is attested in Continental Celtic, and whether it has likely cognates in the neighbouring IE dialects (Germanic and Italic).


1.      *alten- ‘razor’

2.      *amaro- ‘wailing, crying’

3.      *anderā ‘young woman’ (probably attested in Gaulish)

4.      *bando- ‘peak, top’ (attested in Gaulish; possible cognates in Germanic)

5.      *banwo- ‘young pig, piglet’ (attested in Gaulish)

6.      *baski- ‘bundle’ (probable cognates in Italic)

7.      *birro- ‘short’ (attested in Gaulish)

8.      *blVdV- ‘wolf, large predator’

9.      *bodyo- ‘yellow’ (attested in Gaulish, probable cognates in Italic)

10.  *brano- ‘raven’ (attested in Gaulish)

11.  *bratto-, *brattino- ‘mantle, cloak’

12.  *brokko- ‘badger’ (attested in Gaulish)

13.  *bunno- ‘awl, bittern’

14.  *bussu- ‘lip’ (probably attested in Gaulish)

15.  *butā ‘house, dwelling, hut’

16.  *druko- ‘bad’

17.  *durno- ‘fist’

18.  *esok- ‘salmon’ (attested in Gaulish)

19.  *gweno- ‘smile’

20.  *gulbV-, *gulbīno- ‘beak’ (probably attested in Gaulish)

21.  *gurmo- ‘dun, dark’

22.  *kag-o- ‘get, receive’ (probable cognates in Italic)

23.  *kagyo- ‘pen, enclosure’ (possible cognates in Germanic)

24.  *kalmiyo- ‘skilful, skilled’

25.  *kani- ‘good, nice’

26.  *karbanto- ‘war chariot’ (attested in Gaulish)

27.  *kasninā ‘garlic, leek’ (probably attested in Gaulish)

28.  *katrik- ‘fortification’ (probable cognates in Germanic)

29.  *kayto- ‘wood’ (cognates in Germanic)

30.  *klamo- ‘sick, suffering from leprosy’

31.  *klukā ‘stone, rock’

32.  *knū ‘nut’ (probable cognates in Italic and Celtic)

33.  *koligno- ‘pup, small animal’

34.  *koret- ‘palisade, stone wall’ (possible cognates in Germanic)

35.  *korkkyo- ‘oats’ (probable cognates in Germanic)

36.  *kotto- ‘old’ (probably attested in Gaulish)

37.  *krittā ‘body, frame, shape’

38.  *krok(ke)no- ‘skin’ (probably attested in Gaulish)

39.  *krumbo- ‘round, curved’ (probable cognates in Germanic)

40.  *krundi- ‘round, compact’

41.  *krutto- ‘round object, womb’

42.  *kwezdi- ‘piece, portion’ (attested in Gaulish)

43.  *lēro- ‘diligent’

44.  *liro- ‘sea, ocean’

45.  *lomanā ‘rope, thong’

46.  *lubī/ā ‘herb, plant’ (probable cognates in Germanic)

47.  *lukot- ‘mouse’

48.  *luxtu- ‘content, crowd’

49.  *makinā ‘bellow’ (probable cognates in Germanic and Baltic)

50.  *maylo- ‘bald’ (possible cognates in Germanic)

51.  *mazdyo- ‘stick’ (cognates in Italic and Germanic)

52.  *mesal-kā ‘blackbird’ (cognates in Italic and Germanic)

53.  *menādo- ‘awl’

54.  *metto- ‘decay, blight, shame’

55.  *mokku- ‘pig’

56.  *molto- ‘ram, wether’ (probably attested in Gaulish)

57.  *ninati- ‘nettle’ (probable cognates in Germanic and Baltic)

58.  *nino- ‘ash-tree’ (possibly attested in Gaulish)

59.  *nūsso-, *nowsso- ‘first milk, colostrum’

60.  *rem(r)o- ‘fat, thick’

61.  *rendi- ‘point, peak’

62.  *rowk(k)- / *ruk- ‘tunic, mantle’ (cognates in Germanic and Slavic)

63.  *rūnā ‘secret’ (possible cognates in Germanic)

64.  *sēbro- ‘demon, spectre’

65.  *sfrawo- ‘crow’ (possible cognates in Germanic, Baltic, and Italic)

66.  *sido- ‘elk, stag’

67.  *skamo- ‘light’ (possible cognates in Germanic)

68.  *skublo- ‘bird of prey’ (probably attested in Gaulish)

69.  *slad-yo- ‘hit, slay’

70.  *slattā ‘stalk, staff’ (possible cognates in Germanic)

71.  *swanto- ‘treasure, what is desired’

72.  *smēro- ‘berry’

73.  *subi- ‘strawberry’

74.  *sukko- ‘pig’

75.  *tago- ‘strangle, choke’

76.  *torrV- ‘belly’

77.  *trussko- ‘dirty, leprous’

78.  *trusto- ‘noise, cry’

79.  *wesakko-, *wesākko- ‘grebe, raven’

80.  *wēt(t)ā ‘stream, swamp’

81.  *wimonā ‘sea weed’

82.  *wriggant- ‘vermin’ (possibly attested in Gaulish)

83.  *wroyko- ‘heather’ (possible cognates in Balto-Slavic)

84.  *yoyni- ‘rushes, reed’ (probable cognates in Italic and Germanic)

85.  *yutV- ‘pap, porridge’ (possibly attested in Gaulish)


The number of substrate words in Proto-Celtic is actually surprisingly low. Only 85 out of the total 1490 Proto-Celtic words can be ascribed to a non-IE substrate, which is under 6%. This number is probably slightly higher, since several of the IE etymologies proposed in the dictionary might turn out to be false, but even so, it probably does not exceed 10%. Since many of the nouns listed above have probable cognates in other Western Indo-European languages (primarily Italic and Germanic), we might argue that there was no pre-IE substrate exclusive to Celtic, i. e., there was no common substrate in Western Europe from which Celtic, and only Celtic, borrowed words. There are, of course, many words in Welsh and Irish with obscure, presumably non-IE etymology, but it is rather surprising how few of those words go back to Proto-Celtic, or Proto-Insular Celtic (if one believes in that). Again, this may point to the conclusion that there was no single substratum language (or a group of closely related languages) prior to the arrival of the Celts in the British Isles. Judging by the amount of language diversity before the Roman conquests in other parts of Europe, for which we have more data (e.g. for Spain or Italy), this is not so surprising.

It is not surprising that most of the non-IE words in Celtic are nouns, since nouns are much more often borrowed than verbs, or words belonging to other word classes. It is also understandable that nouns of substrate origin often denote birds, plants, and small animals.

On the formal side, one should note that substratum words in Celtic often have geminates and the vowel *a in the root. Both of these features have been recognized as characteristic of substratum words in other European language groups, especially in Germanic. What is more surprising is the fact that words of non-IE origin in Celtic have the vowel *u in the root much more often than could be attributed to chance (24 out of 85 words, or more than a quarter of the total). Moreover, the donor language(s) seem not to have had a length contrast in their vowel systems. The only long vowels that appear in the roots of non-IE loanwords in Celtic are *ē (which can be from the diphthong *ey) and *ū (in two instances, once alternating with *ow). Finally, labiovelars are extremely rare (they occur in only two words), which probably means that the donor language(s) lacked them. The significance of these findings is yet to be evaluated in the realm of the Celtic linguistics.